One Fine Day


With more time on our hands than we are accustomed to, one of the few upsides to the current situation is the ability to dip into the world of recorded music. Imagine how much worse this would all have been without YouTube and Spotify - all the glories of western classical music at our fingertips.

Last night I was reading this article by Toby Deller about his grandfather, the great pioneering counter-tenor Alfred Deller, once a colleague of the founder of our business, Reg Forwood, in Canterbury Cathedral Choir. In it, Toby describes the opening phrase of François Couperin's first Leçon de ténèbres as 'surely the single most beautifully sung phrase of music ever recorded.' It is indeed beautiful - hauntingly so - but how does Toby's claim stand up to scrutiny? I want to give you some signposts to what I believe are some of the finest voices of the 20th Century

Ladies before Gentlemen...

Dame Janet Baker's mezzo-soprano voice is, for me, the ultimate vocal instrument, unequalled in its clarity and expression. Take a listen to her recording of Elgar's Where Corals Lie with Barbirolli and the LSO and tell me you don't agree. Buy the score here.

Kathleen Ferrier was my Dad's favourite. He would have found it inexplicable not to include her recording of Mendelssohn's O Rest in the Lord here. Soulful and full of hope. Buy the score here.

Jessye Norman, who died in the autumn of 2019, left us perhaps the definitive recording of Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs. After her death, the New York Times '10 Greatest Recordings of Jessye Norman' described it thus: 'At the end of “Beim Schlafengehen,” as she sings of a “soul unwatched” soar into immortality, her voice lights the sky with defiant, unbounded joy.' Buy the score here.

Leontyne Price was the first African American to become a leading performer at the Met. A wonderful lyric soprano, especially suited to Italian Opera, she left so many wonderful recordings - listen to her sing Puccini's Vissi d'Arte as an example of her passion and control. Buy the score here.

Maria Callas, the American-born Greek soprano, was perhaps the foremost 'diva' of the mid-20th Century. Often described as 'troubled' or 'controversial' she seemed to pour her very being into her music, resulting in some of the most moving offerings in recorded music history. Here she is singing Un bel di vedremo from Puccini's Madam Butterfly, recorded with Herbert von Karajan and La Scala in 1955. Buy the score here.

Birgit Nilsson possessed a voice of unique power, and a vocal stamina that made her perhaps the finest Wagnerian soprano of all time. As the Guardian's 2006 obituary put it, 'she sounded as fresh at the end of the most challenging roles as she had been at the beginning.' Here is Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. Buy the score here.

Dame Joan Sutherland, the Australian coloratura soprano was that rare thing - an opera singer who was also a household name throughout the height of her career and long after. Luciano Pavarotti, no less, described hers as 'the Voice of the Century'. Here's her recording of Bellini's Casta Diva, with her husband Richard Bonynge conducting the LSO. Buy the score here.

Those are my top picks. Perhaps you have others? Let me know and if this all goes on long enough the operatic divas can have another outing. All the scores listed are available through our online store, although you might prefer one of these aria albums specifically for sopranos and mezzos:

The Prima Donna's Album

Arias for Soprano

Arias for Mezzo Soprano

Operatic Anthology for Soprano

Operatic Anthology for Mezzo Soprano

Of course, it's ridiculous to compare the relative merits of Joan Sutherland and Alfred Deller, but it was Toby Deller's comment that sent me on a search for the most beautifully-sung phrase of all time. What I'd really like is for this blog post to open up avenues of listening for you. I have really enjoyed it putting it together and listening to these fabulous voices. I hope you do too.

Best wishes,





Brian Smith
26 March 2020  |  15:36

Thanks very much, Stephen,

I much enjoyed reading this. Personally, Joan Sutherland would be the outstanding female singer of the twentieth century. I heard her first in 1977, when she was a mature singer. Her technique remained impeccable and extraordinary throughout her lengthy career. Her 2-CD set "The Art of the Prima Donna" is widely acknowledged to be one of the finest. Incidentally, Josef Weinberger used to publish a 12 volume Art of Joan Sutherland - a great resource for singers and accompanists.

All the artists you mention are wonderful. Mention of your Dad brings back memories of Dover, Stephen, when we were somewhat younger. I remember hearing Dame Isobel Baillie giving a lecture/recital to the Deal Music Club in 1971(?) - she was in her early eighties!

Stay well, Stephen, Sue and Joe.

Stephen Yarrow
26 March 2020  |  16:35

Thanks Brian - good to hear from you!